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The sneaky impact of bunting for a hit

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To analytics fans, sacrifice bunting does nothing but waste a precious out. But, what about bunting for a hit? This, on the other hand, has surprising impacts.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Philadelphia Phillies
Cesar Hernandez had the most bunt singles in 2016.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez had a solid season last year. For the first time in his career, he posted a wRC+ over 100 (108), making him an above-average hitter. Adding in reliable defense on the right side of the infield, Hernandez was worth a cool 4.4 fWAR, a real asset to the Phillies’ squad.

Here at Beyond The Box Score, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an article that focuses on batting average, but I’m about to embark into the depths of the stat that is frowned upon by many in the sabermetric community, who are far more in favor of on-base percentage at the very least.

Hernandez’s batting average last season was .294. This is quite good, although it’s not above the completely arbitrary .300 mark that has always signaled a “good” hitter. But, how about this? While Hernandez did bat .294, he would have dropped to .274 if not for 15 bunt hits, good for the most in the major leagues.

While that might sound like a lot, it turns out Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon has the most for a single season since 2010, with 20 in 2014. That season, Gordon hit .289. Without those 20 bunts, he would have hit just .265.

And, while bunting for a hit might not seem to be that successful, it appears that MLB hitters have naturally selected themselves into the players who can and can’t do it.

Consider this. Since 2007, the batting average of bunts with nobody on base — which can’t be sacrifices gone wrong, then — has consistently stayed above .400.

Bunting For A Hit

Year Attempts (PA) Batting Average
Year Attempts (PA) Batting Average
2007 747 .434
2008 734 .441
2009 765 .400
2010 735 .403
2011 823 .435
2012 784 .438
2013 709 .436
2014 778 .443
2015 671 .443
2016 600 .433

But hitters are doing it fewer times. Last year, the bunt-for-a-hit approach was used just 600 times, by far the fewest of the past 10 years. In 2011, hitters tried it out on 823 occasions, and they actually were the slightest bit more successful than those in 2016. Of those 823 bases-empty at-bats that ended in a bunt, 358 went for hits.

Of course, the right kind of player has to give bunting for a hit a shot. We aren’t going to see Ryan Howard doing it any time soon (regardless of whether he’s in the major leagues next season). But does that mean they have to be a speedster?

Here are the 10 hitters with the most bunt hits over the past five years, along with the number of stolen bases and baserunning runs above average they have recorded over the same time span.

Top bunters

Batter Bunt Hits Base Running Runs Stolen Bases
Batter Bunt Hits Base Running Runs Stolen Bases
Dee Gordon 38 26.4 194
Leonys Martin 33 21.9 108
Billy Hamilton* 30 36.7 184
Erick Aybar 29 7.1 66
Carlos Gomez 26 20.6 146
Danny Espinosa 25 11.1 43
Starling Marte 24 21.7 160
Michael Bourn 23 17.8 107
Cesar Hernandez* 22 3.4 37
Alejandro De Aza 23 5.8 74
*Played fewer than five seasons

This chart shows exactly what I would have expected it to. The players who have the most bunt hits are the same players that steal a lot of bases and do well on the base paths. They are the fastest players, and that helps them with their bunting. There is one surprise on this list, though: Danny Espinosa, who has never been a burner, yet still manages to bunt well. It could be due to pure skill, which ESPN highlighted in an article in 2016.

Players aside, it also is interesting to me to see which teams are bunting the most with nobody on base. With that same 2012-16 time span, here are the five teams that have bunted for a hit the most and how successful they’ve been.

Most bunts by team, 2012-16

Team Bunt Attempts Bunt Hits Batting Average
Team Bunt Attempts Bunt Hits Batting Average
Reds 174 72 .414
Marlins 166 69 .416
Brewers 161 70 .435
Twins 160 73 .456
Nationals 158 73 .462

And now, here are the five teams who have bunted for a hit the least.

Fewest bunts by team, 2012-16

Team Bunt Attempts Bunt Hits Batting Average
Team Bunt Attempts Bunt Hits Batting Average
Red Sox 43 21 .488
Cardinals 58 24 .414
Yankees 69 35 .507
Athletics 74 39 .527
Orioles 84 37 .440

Even though these teams have bunted fewer times than those on the first list, the success rate still remains fairly constant, at around 40-50 percent.

Of course, the Reds and Marlins rank at the top of the list because of players like Hamilton and Gordon, respectively. And I’m not surprised to see the Orioles near the end of the list, mostly because the Orioles usually invest in the power-hitting type of player (think Chris Davis or Mark Trumbo) and rarely have the speedy leadoff guy.

Bunting against the shift

But, one thing that has had the opportunity to change over the past few years is bunting against the shift. Shifts, of course, have increased dramatically over the past seven seasons (as far as FanGraphs’ data goes), but have players responded by bunting more often to try and beat it?

Here’s the numbers of shifts (both “traditional” and “non-traditional”) alongside the number of bunt attempts since 2010. Again, this is with the bases empty, to ensure these bunts are not sacrifices.

Bunting against the shift

Year PA With Shift Bunts Attempts Against Shift % Of Shifts With Bunt Bunts For A Hit Bunt BA
Year PA With Shift Bunts Attempts Against Shift % Of Shifts With Bunt Bunts For A Hit Bunt BA
2010 1496 18 1.2% 15 .833
2011 1517 15 1.0% 12 .800
2012 3067 30 1.0% 21 .700
2013 4534 43 0.9% 24 .558
2014 8569 63 0.7% 37 .587
2015 12810 218 1.7% 106 .486
2016 19260 244 1.3% 114 .467
AVERAGE/TOTAL 51253 631 1.2% 329 .521

This shows that, while the amount of shifts has increased significantly, the number of bunts against the shift has not increased to the same extent. It has always hovered around 1 percent. What this also shows, though, is that bunting against the shift is in fact successful. Since 2010, hitters have attempted to bunt out of a shift 631 times and were successful 329 for a .521 average.

Plus, if a hitter attempts to bunt out of a shift every time (or at least regularly), then he’ll likely be shifted against less. The benefits for a hitter to put his fortunes in a dribbler down the line are too good to not try it.

Since 2010, no player has tried more times than Hamilton to bunt out of a shift with nobody on base (30 times). But, interestingly enough, the hitter who tried it the second-most times was Carlos Pena, a 225-pound slugger with just 29 stolen bases to his name over 14 big league seasons.

And, he was very successful at it. Pena bunted to beat the shift 24 times since 2010 and took the defense by enough surprise that he was able to leg out 17 hits. Here is Pena doing just that against the Reds in 2007, with two strikes nonetheless:

The Perfect Bunt

John Dewan of Bill James Online ran an interesting case study in 2011, dividing up the baseball field into six zones and determining the success of bunts in each of those zones. Here is the pictorial representation of those zones:

And now, from the 2011 data, the batting average by zone:

Bunting Success By Field Zone, 2011

Zone Batting Average
Zone Batting Average
Zone 1 .246
Zone 2 .412
Zone 3 .164
Zone 4 .139
Zone 5 .520
Zone 6 .720

This confirms the notion that bunting down the left side of the infield is the most successful when trying to get a hit. It’s not hard to see why. The fielders have to make the toughest throw, and even with a good pickup and throw, the runner may still beat them due to the distance alone.

To conclude, bunting for a hit carries a lot of rarely seen value for both the player and the team. And, really, hitters are just scratching the surface of the perfect bunt and beating the shift with the bunt. So, while we may enjoy never bunting and hitting dingers, bunting for a hit might not be all that bad or as ineffective as I initially thought.

. . .

Devan Fink is a contributor at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.